Houseleek

(Sempervivum tectorum) or Welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk, which must be the most picturesque of plant names. "Preserves what it grows upon from Fire and Lightning", Culpeper said; "as good as a fire insurance", they say in Wiltshire (Wiltshire). John Clare noted that in his native Northamptonshire "no cottage ridge about us is without these as Superstition holds it out as a charm against lightning". In Somerset the cover is extended to include witches (Tongue. 1965). So it is in the Isle of Man, where it is encouraged to grow as near the door as possible (Gill. 1932). It is luibh an toetean (fire herb) in Irish (Grigson. 1955), and if it grows on the thatch it will preserve the occupants of the house not only from the dangers of fire, but from related mishaps such as burns and scalds, so long as it remains untouched (Wilde. 1890) - a belief specifically recorded in County Clare by Westropp. 1911. Exactly the same idea turns up in East Anglia (G E Evans. 1966); in fact, during the last half of the 20th century there have been instances recorded of families moving from old or condemned houses to new council houses, and carefully taking some with them to put on the roofs of their new homes (Porter. 1969). Even the outside toilet had to be similarly protected (Lancashire FWI). Further back in time, we find it even said that Charlemagne himself ordered that every dwelling in his empire should have one growing on its roof, to protect it from fire and lightning (Conway). The belief was around even further back, for to the Romans, this plant was Diopetes, "fallen from Zeus", to protect the house from the lightning he wielded (Grigson. 1955).

There is an extension to this superstition - what protects from fire will protect from heat. Albertus Magnus described it by saying that he who rubs his hands with the juice of houseleek will be insensible to pain when required to take red hot iron in his hands (Folkard). This is mentioned in the Boke of Mervayles of the World - "spell to prevent the hands burning with a Red-hot iron. Wne redde Arsenicum is taken, broken and confected, or made with the juice of a herb called Housleeke, and the gall of a bull, and a man anointeth his hands with it, and after taketh hot irone it burneth them not". One test for an accused witch was to make her take a bar of red-hot metal in her hands - she would be innocent if it did not burn her. Actually, the "redde Artsenicum", red lead, that is, might just offer some protection against heat, but certainly not to the extent of handling with no effect metal at red heat.

It follows that these superstitions are mirrored in a number of houseleek's medicinal uses. "They take away the fire of burnings and scaldings ..." (Gerard), as one would be led to suspect. The leaves were used in Scotland to put on burns, like a plaster (Jamieson), and so they were in America (O P Brown). A Yorkshire remedy for burns and scalds was to use the leaves bruised with cream (Morris); and in fact the freshly gathered leaves are used to this day like this (and for corns, too). Similar ideas would account for its use against the fiery diseases - "they are good against S. Anthonie's fire, the shingles, and other creeping ulcers and inflammations ." (Gerard). A gypsy remedy for ringworm is to boil houseleek, and then to dab the affected part with the water, and there is an erysipelas cure that requires pounded houseleek in a little skimmed milk. The rash should be bathed with this several times each day (V G Hatfield. 1994). Rather more exotic is a shingles remedy from Hertfordshire, which was to mix hair from a black cat's tail with the jucie of houseleek and cream, warm it all, and apply it three times a day (Jones-Baker. 1974). It sounds like a fusion of the two traditions, for styes on the eye used to be treated in old wives' lore by rubbing them with the tail of a black cat, as Parson Woodforde well knew (Woodforde). Probably, the Balkans use of the juice for a scorpion sting (Kemp) has its origin in the same idea.

Presumably because of its virtues against lightning, it is looked on as a good luck plant in a lot of places, whether, as in Dalmatia, the luck is integral with its medicinal uses (Kemp), or whether, as in parts of France, it brings the luck to the house on whose roof it is planted (Sebillot) (perhaps that is why it was used as a symbol of domestic industry, and also of vivacity (Leyel. 1937)), and long life to the people living in it (houseleek is called meure-jamais in Berry, and there are lots of "evergreen" names). In other places, it was used as a prophylactic in some way or other, by cutting the flowering stalks, for instance, and making them into crosses to hang over stable doors (Sebillot). In England, though, it was once said that the flowers were unlucky, and they were cut off before they could bloom (Conway). Nevertheless, rhere is negative evidence from this country of the luck of the houseleek, for they used to say in Sussex that you would bring trouble to the house if you pulled up the houseleek from the roof (Latham); in other words, the trouble would come with the destruction of the luck.

There is one very odd Breton superstition that said if a man put houseleek in his pocket, and made a girl smell it, it would have her running after him (Sebillot). It sounds like an error, and was probably meant for something like southernwood, which, with a name like Lad's Love, has been famous for the courting belief. Nevertheless, there is an example of love divination from America. You stick two pieces of the plant in a wall, naming them after a man and a girl. If the pieces grow towards each other, the couple will love each other (Whitney & Bullock).

Besides the medicinal uses that stem from its magical, protective qualities, houseleek has been used for more rational purposes. Herbalists still use it, for example, for eye- and ear-drops (Conway), the latter an old Cotswold remedy - squeezing houseleek juice, sometimes mixed with cream, into the ears to cure earache has been known for a very long time (Briggs. 1974; Helias). The medieval Welsh medical text known as the Physicians of Myddfai prescribed it "for deafness. Take ram's urine, the oil of eels, the house leek, and the juice of traveller's joy [Clematis vitalba], and a boiled egg. Let him mix and drop into the ear little by little, and it will cure him ...". Bathing sore eyes with the juice is well known in Ireland (P Logan. 1972), and in Wessex (Rogers). Gerard knew all about this, for he recommended the juice to cool the "inflammation of the eyes, beng dropped therein, and the herb bruised and layd upon them". Sore lips could be treated with it, too; there is a Lincolnshire cure which involved holding a leaf between the lips, and bruising it so that the "cream" comes out. In fact, an application of houseleek, especially made into an ointment, is good for any sore place, it was said (Rudkin), including bed sores. It was used for the last named well into the 20th century, and is good for shingles and burns, too (Beith). The juice is still used to put on insect bites (M Baker. 1974), while there is a report from Norfolk that it is used in some unspecified way to cure cramp (Taylor. 1929). In Ireland, the juice is used to stop bleeding from a cut (Maloney), and from East Anglia to the Scottish Highlands the crushed leaves have been applied to bruises (Randell; Grant), and as a poultice for headaches (Gibson. 1959). In Cumbria, warts are cured by rubbing them with houseleek (Newman & Wilson), and they formed part of an odd cure for wens, too - "anoynt them with oil of snails, oil of swallows, and houseleek, e g parts, but do this not on a Friday or the first quarter of the moon" (Jeffrey). Houseleek poultices were used in East Anglia for treating boils and abscesses (V G Hatfield. 1994), and there is a report of a leg ulcer being treated (on gypsy advice) with houseleek, but it would be no use unless the dried herb was made up into an ointment using fresh dairy-cream as the base (G E Evans. 1960). It was used in veterinary medicine, too. Irish people used to treat their horses' blistered feet (as long as the blisters were not too severe) with melted goose grease to which turpentine and the juice of houseleek had been added (P Logan. 1972).

A surprising report was given by Roy Vickery in Folk-lore.vol 96; 1985p 253, in which he said that an Irish use of houseleek was to cause abortion. Some of the plants would be boiled, and the water given to the girl to drink. Later on, she was to climb a high wall and jump down, and that would do the trick. One assumes that the second part of the treatment wouild have been the only operative one, yet the plant appears in a list of abortifacients in Dutch folk medicine (Van Andel), so perhaps there is some virtue in that direction.

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